Nobel-Winning Chemist Sir Harold Kroto On Science Education And Creativity

Scientific pursuit should be motivated by curiosity and not prizes, says Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto, who opened an entirely new branch of chemistry with his co-discovery of the buckyball.

AsianScientist (Jul. 2, 2012) – Sir Harold Kroto is a modern Renaissance man. Besides discovering the Buckminsterfullerene (Buckyball) with U.S. colleagues and winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996, he is also an accomplished graphic artist and long-term advocate for science education.

Prof. Kroto started the Vega Science Trust nearly twenty years ago, and recently started GEOSET, a web-based science education initiative which is being picked up by numerous educational institutions around the world.

On a recent trip to Singapore, Prof. Kroto gave a public lecture entitled “Creativity Without Borders” that was organized by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Institute of Advanced Studies in association with the British High Commission of Singapore.

Asian Scientist Magazine had the opportunity to hear from Prof. Kroto his insights on science and education, and why creativity is so important in a child’s learning years.

Prof. Kroto, what is your general philosophy on science education?

Well, there are several. The first thing is that for small children, I think they do have to trust their teachers and their parents. The most important thing for an educator or a parent, is to teach the children how they can decide what they are being told is actually true. And that is science because science deals with fundamental truths.

Most other human inventions gloss over the fact that they are not based on fundamental truth and are in general impervious to rigorous evidence-based assessment. They deal with human constructs and wishful thinking, various things that people find interesting or people created which may not necessarily have any truthful basis.

We should be teaching children not to accept any information without assessing the evidence very carefully. I want children to ask questions, to be curious, to ask “Why?”

As far as teachers are concerned, they should catalyze creative potential in every child. That is difficult because every child is different and all children find different people interesting.

To sum up teachers have a lot to do: a) Catalyze the creative potential for every child; b) Foster the ability to decide what they are being told is true; c) Encourage curiosity about everything; d) Make sure children do not accept unquestioningly what people tell them; and e) Encourage children to work things out for themselves. In fact it is vital that they accept no one’s word without question on major issues including their parents, their teachers, and most importantly themselves.

Given the abundance of information available, how should children or teachers go about validating all of this information?

If some minor things in textbooks are not right, that is not necessarily very important because people make the odd mistake. It is however important in a scientific text that one does not gloss over important issues and simplify key issues which might be somewhat complex. This is the challenge of teaching.

The philosophical approach is very important in the sense that for things that are very important to me in science, I look at them very carefully, and I read the papers very critically and look at the evidence as carefully as I can.

I think it is important when I look at a paper with interesting observations. I look at it and decide whether it is interesting enough for me to follow it up and check it out.

One should have a doubt-based attitude in science – or should I say the discipline of natural philosophy requires this. I consider natural philosophy the only construct we have devised to determine truth with any degree of reliability.

Now we call it science, it used to be called natural philosophy. I call it natural philosophy because it disconnects it from “science” in an important way because society in general does not know or appreciate the intellectual basis of “science.”

A scientist is not someone who has done science at university or school or happens to like science and studied it, but someone whose profession is day in day out the discovery new knowledge ie is a researcher. That is a scientist is someone who looks deeply into the way things work and squeezes blood out of the stone of knowledge and gradually reveals the way the universe works. That is a “scientist” and science is hard work.

Professor Sir Harold Kroto (b.1939), British physical chemist and Nobel Laureate. Kroto is seen here among models of fullerenes (‘Buckyballs’). In 1996, Kroto shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in recognition of his work on fullerenes. (Photo:

Related Stories from Asian Scientist